Friday 25 May 2018

Neil Francis: The day my life changed because of the outcome of a game of rugby

I remain indebted to my team-mates who proved courage trumps talent in heat of battle

‘My life would change as a result of the outcome of a game of rugby at Donnybrook Stadium’. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
‘My life would change as a result of the outcome of a game of rugby at Donnybrook Stadium’. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

HOLD THE BACK PAGE: Neil Francis

The 2018 edition of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup begins this month. For the participants it is a competition which means everything, because at that time in your life it is the only thing. My thoughts here are a reflection on a famous game in which I played. What it meant to me. What it meant to two 'lesser' players on my team and what it meant to the two schools who took part in a match of unparalleled ferocity where losing was just not an option.

I found these words etched in bessin granite at the Normandy American Cemetery beside Omaha Beach, written by somebody who fought there: "You can manufacture weapons and you can purchase ammunition but you can't buy valour and you can't pull heroes off an assembly line."

On a grey Sunday in February 1981 I went to war for Blackrock College. The battleground was inside Donnybrook Stadium. I was not to know it at the time, but my life would change as a result of the outcome of a game of rugby. It was a remarkable contest. They don't do 3-0 anymore but it was as authentic an encounter as you could ever witness, testimony that in a battle of wills nothing is ceded cheaply, if at all. The gods decreed that a score to nil would decide it.

Our opponents, Terenure College, were the 1979 and 1980 champions, more than worthy opponents and a school that garnered great satisfaction and encouragement from beating us in those two finals. Psychologically, they had our number.

The team that represented Blackrock College that day was charged with the responsibility of the occasion - uphold the tradition of the school and put the usurpers back in their box. We were driven by one of the great motivating forces in human nature - there was no alternative, we simply had to win that game.

I remember saying a prayer on the night before the game, promising the Lord that I would be good for the rest of my life if we won. I lied! There had, in any case, been 29 other such requests. There would be no divine intervention - not even the Almighty was taking sides on this one. Human endeavour only.

I also remember the dressing room at the Bective end, and looking around at our team minutes before heading out on the pitch. Years later I would find out that my team-mates would continually use me as a barometer, so that if I looked like I was up for it, well then so would they be. On the other hand . . .

Everyone would happily have given their life for a taste of victory on that day. Being up for it is one thing, being good enough is an entirely different matter. They say a team is only as strong as its weakest link and in this Blackrock team of real quality you would have to go looking.

Ciaran Savage and Peter Kelleher stood out. In terms of size and power they simply did not measure up. In terms of skill levels and footballing ability they were 14th and 15th out of 15. Neither of them had pace, nor were they deep thinkers of the game. In terms of verbal output they practically never said a word on or off the pitch. In terms of being key influencers or boys who could come up with a decisive move or play that changed a game - it never happened. They were, however, a smidgen more than dependable. There was unflinching reinforcement to their bricks and mortar and in a nation of chiefs and indians, they only wore one feather. Somebody had to do the dirty work.

Peadar (Peter Kelleher) at seven was a fetcher and a tackler. He was a triumph of the human spirit. Physically he was cadaverous but mentally his resolve was unmatchable. Many times we would sit around in dressing rooms feeling good about what we did, oblivious to the fact that this boy had taken a fearful battering for the team and he just sat there listening to us as his body ached.

Sav (Ciaran Savage) at tighthead was also an enigma. Teams expecting Blackrock to roll out Tadhg Furlong-size props would do a double take as this undernourished cruiserweight came out onto the park.

I was intimate with some of the examinations Sav got throughout the season. Many a loosehead would size him up and do him for the first 15 or 20 minutes. Size and power will trump most people in that position but this guy was an awkward bastard and whatever else he could or could not do he had an indomitable will.

Sometimes Sav would need a pilot's licence for the first few scrums, but you could see him thinking it out and well before half-time he would have sorted it out through dogged application and sheer cussedness. Long before the final whistle his exasperated opponents had thrown in the towel.

Macaulay Culkin had a great line in the movie Home Alone as the underdog thwarted the two would-be burglars: "You guys give up, or are you thirsty for more?"

That dressing room before the Terenure quarter-final was what you might have imagined if you ever had a mental image of fixing your bayonet in the trenches before the whistle went at the battle of the Somme. How would the two boys measure up in a battle of brutal intensity where, physically, they would be exposed? All they had until that moment was an untested reserve of courage. Would it carry them through? Courage, they say, is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.

We weren't disappointed with the scale of physicality. I had not played in a match of such carnivorous intensity before, nor have I since. Quite simply, it was the toughest match I have ever played in. No passengers. No reputations. No respite. No compromise. No excuses. I have been told that from the sideline it was an utterly absorbing and compelling contest. I am told that the ground was so full that there were people up trees and on roofs looking for vantage. I am told that the old ground crackled with the purity of the contest. It was a great occasion and an essay in assessing character, in how you react under the most intense pressure.

All the way through the match my second row partner, Brian O'Sullivan, kept me honest. He was my conscience. Throughout the season I'd had his assiduous prompting - "get there", "push harder", "keep working" - but he didn't need to say it on this occasion. I couldn't have pushed myself harder.

After 35 minutes of purposeful effort and near total domination, Blackrock only had three points to show for it. The second half would be a dramatic reversal in terms of who dictated the pace of the game.

Terenure turned up the gas in the second half and instinct and breathless defiance kept them out. All the way through this Sav and Peadar played with the sort of resilience that showed them to be the best players on the pitch. They defied the physical mis-match, confronted reason and shut out any thoughts of self-preservation.

Churchill once said "courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others". When the push came in the last quarter and it looked like our challenge was flagging, our two weakest links reported for duty on the line as the tackles and really hard work that needed to be done under more and more pressure got done.

We can borrow from TS Elliot and his truly brilliant 'Defence of the Islands'.

And of those who, in man's newest form of gamble with death, fight the power of darkness in air and fire

And of those who have followed their forebears to Flanders and France, those undefeated in defeat, unalterable in triumph, changing nothing of their ancestors' ways but the weapons

And those again for whom the paths of glory are the lanes and the streets of Britain:

To say, to the past and the future generations of our kin, and of our speech, that we took up our positions, in obedience to instructions.

The final 10 minutes came down to a goal line stand principally at the Bective end, down by the tennis courts. Terenure had worked their way to within a metre of our line. It would be our throw-in. Back then when the ball went in a metre from the line then that was where the lineout was.

The forward huddle was a seminal moment. Quite apart from protecting the sanctity of our try line - if Terenure scored here the game was over, none of us wanted to endure the unendurable.

Our captain, Jim Bertrand, had a flutter of indecision. "Who wants this throw"? My conscience and second row partner for the first time in the match went quiet. There was only one person that the ball was going to. It was what I was there for.

As the huddle broke I caught two pairs of unblinking eyes looking at me through muddied complexions. Two fellas who had given the supreme physical effort, two fellas who had bled themselves dry, two fellas who were running on empty, who had no control over what would happen next. In a moment of silence such as that, nothing needed to be said.

Even though I had played in the previous year's cup campaign I was still only 16 years of age. When you look back at the pressure that you are under at a very young age it was incredible. The team were pushed down away from our support which was up at the Wesley end. There was a cabal of Terenure past pupils baying for blood all around the 22 at the Bective end. Terenure moved their two big men up to double team me and their scrum-half, Ronan McNamara, screamed, "you know where it is going; you know where it is going."

The ghost of Fr Jules Leman watched from afar to see whether this crop had the right stuff!

Right there and then you just do your job. Mistime your jump or succumb to pressure from their jumpers and you easily slap the ball over the line and their hooker falls on the ball for the match-winning try. But what really focused the mind was the incorruptible honesty of effort from Sav and Peadar - you fail and you could never really look them in the eye again. I had no alternative. I simply had to catch the ball.

The catch was sure and three more in the last five minutes deep in our 22. We persisted and we persevered and when the final whistle blew there was incalculable ecstasy of the win in the face of stone-edged adversity.

Experiences like that do not build character, they reveal it. A team is born when self-doubt is mastered but also when it is tested to the limit and all perform. The cup win goes down to two players who produced from the deepest recesses of their being when it was needed most.

We acknowledge our opponents of the time and of that memorable day, the tacit acceptance and realisation years later that no other team could elicit such a response to the depth and degree of their challenge. We left the field completely spent, our nerves and core frayed at the edges, because they had taken us to the edge. Reverence and esteem were the over-riding emotion for the scale of their challenge and relief that it came up just short. Total respect for our beaten adversaries - they had been champions for a reason.

We pay homage to a truly extraordinary man, Fr Malachy Kilbride - who passed away on St Stephen's Day - who fashioned a championship-winning team on this occasion and did so by imbuing his own competitive zeal into the side, allied to conferring a real sense of brotherhood and unshakeable character by way of precept and honest example. A remarkable and virtuous man whose intelligence and principles were reflected in how the team played.

The team that he prepared took the field knowing that the words emblazoned on the crest of the school, Fides et Robur (Faith and Strength), were so much more than merely a school motto. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his guidance and path-finding leadership that none of us could ever hope to repay, save to say that his rallying call quoted many times before we went into battle will live with us forever.

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Fides et Robur.

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